‘Just go for it’: Q&A with machinist Bobbi Day on women in the skilled trades
By Kristina Urquhart
Bobbi Day had been working as a restaurant server when she discovered a unique opportunity to join the skilled trades. Women’s Enterprise Skills Training of Windsor (WEST), an organization that provides employment training to racialized women who are unemployed or underemployed, was launching a pre-apprenticeship certificate program for women to prepare them for trade school at St. Clair College.
Five years after first joining the program, Day’s earned her General Machinist Certificate of Apprenticeship and has several years’ work experience under her belt. She also recently joined the team of ambassadors at Build a Dream, a non-profit that informs young women about career opportunities in sectors where women are traditionally underrepresented.
Day recently spoke to MA about her journey to working in the skilled trades, where women hold four per cent of all jobs – and shared some advice for women looking to join the sector.
Manufacturing AUTOMATION: What drew you to a career in machining and programming?
Bobbi Day: I went to an arts high school, and when I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my future. My friends were going to school for nursing, personal support worker, things like that. Some of them were not getting jobs. All of this school, and they weren’t even getting hired in what they went to school for.
So the word “college” kind of scared me because of that, and I spent about four and a half years waitressing after school. One day I came across this flyer from WEST that said something like, “Would you like to work hands-on? Free tuition.” I’ve always been hands-on. When I was a kid, I used to take apart radios and put them back together. So I called. They did an aptitude test and said they were going to choose 25 women to be in the CNC Industrial Mechanic Millwright Pre-Apprenticeship program.
MA: How did you find out you’d been chosen?
BD: I was working at [a restaurant] at the time. One day, all of the women from WEST came in on a reservation, but I didn’t know. My boss said, “Your reservation arrived and is over here in the other room.” I came over and it was the women from WEST. They said, “You’re the first one we chose for the program.” They came to surprise me! Even to this day, Nour [Hachem-Fawaz, a former WEST employee and the founder of Build a Dream] says a picture from that day is her favourite. I’m sitting there in my [server] outfit. Now I have my machinist’s outfit.
Nour is definitely one of my biggest mentors for sure. She has been my number one supporter, and I can’t thank her enough. And all the women at WEST as well. Those women have always been there for me and always helped me every step of the way.
MA: What was involved in studying to be a machinist?
BD: I started in 2015 when I began my pre-apprenticeship through WEST. I did a year of the pre-apprenticeship, and then three more years of school at St. Clair College, with the third year being the full apprenticeship. I got hired at a mold shop, right off the bat, not really knowing much. I was there for about four years.
“There’s no regret in getting into the trades. The government pays you to go to school. They give you incentives, even just for being a woman in the trades.”
In the shop, they made the big steel molds and then we sent those out to the plastic injection company that would make bumpers, the interior doors, centre console, things like that.
I’m not a mold maker, but I did the machining. I would set up the jobs, program the jobs, cut the jobs, then send them out to be heat treated before they’d come back to us and we’d finish the job. Some other shops have separate set-up people, they have programmers, they have people that specifically only operate the machines. It was a really good experience for me to learn all of that on my own.
MA: How did COVID-19 affect your job?
BD: I was initially laid off. And then when it all started [back up], it was really confusing at first. I was one of the only people on the floor wearing a mask, because at the time, no one really knew what was going on.
At the time, I had been living with my mom. So that was one of my main things I had to think about – going to the shop and [possibly exposing my mom to the virus]. I was on weekend shift, working three days a week, and I was around two different shifts [at changeover]. Between other employees not wanting to participate in certain restrictions and being around all these people in such tight spaces, I made the decision to pause. I couldn’t only think about myself, I had to think about my mom, who is older.
MA: How have you been working on professional development during the pandemic?
BD: My friend has been trying to start her own company doing home renovations and things like that. She was looking for other females that are interested, and she knew that I’ve been in a trade. So she’s been showing me how to do insulation, drywalling, mudding, things like that. One day my dream is to build my own house. This is kind of the groundwork for that.
That’s the thing about the trades. When you’re someone who likes things like this, once you get into experiencing the different trades, all of it is interesting. I found something else right now that keeps me busy that I’m interested in. And it’s just as hands-on and physical as machining.
MA: Do you plan to get back into machining?
BD: For sure. I want to get my journeyperson ticket. The whole point of me going to school was because I want to be a certified tradesperson. I want to be able to have that paper. If I’m in an interview with someone else who has the same amount of experience as me, but I have a ticket, it just shows that extra effort.
But as soon as I was done school in 2019, I wanted to take a break from school. I shouldn’t have, because everything was drilled in my head. I should have just taken the exams right away, because boom, less than a year and COVID came and then everything just kind of got put on hold! A friend of mine recently finished her Certificate of Qualification exams. So, I’m studying her notes now. And I need to hop back into the shop.
MA: What’s involved with getting the ticket?
BD: It’s basically everything that you have learned in the three years of college, crunched into an exam. There is a summer prep course for it, which we were all required to take at the end of school. I definitely want to go back to the summer prep course before I try and write this because even all our professors have told us it’s very hard.
But there were grants every year in school. When you pass the exam, you get an extra $1,000 grant. And the exam costs I think about $150 to take. You can do it as many times as you need to. So at the end, you’re just reimbursed, basically.
There’s no regret in getting into the trades. The government pays you to go to school. They give you incentives, even just for being a woman in the trades. They take into consideration that women have families, and that there are lots of single moms. They’re there to help. We just have to go and ask for it and look for it.
MA: Did you find there were challenges you faced entering the industry as a woman, and specifically as a Black woman?
BD: I’m very outgoing and an extrovert. There were personal struggles with men versus women in the shop. They weren’t used to women in the shop at all. But because I’m very strong, I just made myself known, and they got over it really quick. For other people that aren’t necessarily as outgoing or strong-minded as me, there are definitely challenges, but it all comes down to how you personally want to handle it. You can either let them control your future in the career, or you can just [forge ahead].
“The biggest barrier was trying to earn my respect in the shop. For them to take me seriously, and to know that I’m not just here for fun. I’m here because this is going to be my future.”
When I started in my shop, I skipped the whole setup stage, and I went right to a machine. A guy from the shop was trying to get me to be the set-up person, and do this or that for [him]. And I was like, “Sorry boys, but I’m an operator.” That was the biggest barrier. Trying to earn my respect in the shop. For them to take me seriously, and to know that I’m not just here for fun. I’m here because this is going to be my future and I want to be like you guys.
MA: Do you still find challenges?
BD: My challenges are just based off of my job. Now, I’m completely past all those other personal barriers. Specifically, the challenge is what has to be done with each job, like if I’m able to take the task on my own or how much how help I need to do it. Even these guys that have been doing it for 15 years, they always say themselves they’re still learning. Now, it doesn’t come down to my sex, or my race, or anything like that. It just comes down to the actual job. Which is what it should be.
MA: What do you like about working in automation?
BD: Being able to take a piece of steel that’s sometimes half the size of my living room, or even a little small piece the size of my cell phone, and take that piece of nothing and literally turn it into something that gets circulated throughout the entire world. It’s not even something miniscule. It’s so big on the margin. And it all comes from a little piece of steel that I worked on. It just kind of blows your mind.
MA: What excites you about your future in automation?
BD: Just where it could go. I picture myself owning my own shop. In just five years, I’ve already come so far. I got hired at the shop that I was previously working at. Right before this most recent lockdown, I was hired by Nour to be an ambassador for Build a Dream. In 2019, WEST flew me out to Vancouver for a Woman in Trades conference to talk to girls in grade school. I had never really been anywhere else in Canada before. That was awesome.
“If you’re someone who is into hands-on things, there’s a trade for it. I didn’t know what machining was, but I know that when I was younger, I used to like to take things apart and put them back together.”
Things are on halt right now because of everything that’s going on with COVID, but I can picture the next five years. Right before all this, I was learning five-axis programming, which is completely different and so much more in-depth than three-axis programming. In five-axis, which is what they use for finishing, the head of the machine moves on five axes and gets into every little crevice that you can imagine. I can’t wait to get back in there and start learning again.
MA: What advice do you give to women who are considering joining the skilled trades?
BD: It sounds so cliché, but I say “just go for it.” If you’re someone who is into hands-on things, there’s a trade for it. I didn’t know what machining was, but I know that when I was younger, I used to like to take things apart and put them back together. Even at home, when my mom didn’t know how to do things, I’d fix faucets and stuff just from watching YouTube.
You’ll worry about struggles when they come and you’ll obviously overcome them. But just go for it. I was out of high school for four years. I was waitressing, and I had nothing to do with the trades. I went for it and now here I am. I’m an advocate for women in the trades. I came from an art school. Nobody at my school told me about these opportunities, not even the guidance counsellor. I just came across them on my own, and I went for it. And it’s gotten me to places I never thought I’d be.
MA: Vocational occupations and trades jobs are so important. There’s a labour shortage.
BD: You know, you might not necessarily think “I want to be a welder,” but there might be other things that you’re interested in that eventually [narrow] down you to being a welder. Like I said, me taking apart a radio. Eventually, I found out that there’s a career that is based off of something along those lines.
You can get into this no matter how old you are. When we were upgrading our math in pre-apprenticeship, my excuse [for needing help] was, “I haven’t been in high school in five years.” There were women in there who were about 40 years old, and they were like, “We haven’t done this in forever.” But those women now? One that was in my class is working and making so much money. It just doesn’t matter how old you are. Whenever you start, the industry is always there. It’s always booming, and they always want us.
This interview has been edited.